“Turn off your headlamp,” I told Jill, switching off my own. Her head swiveled toward me, and I was blinded by the blue-white glare of her cycloptic beam.

“Are you crazy? We won’t know where they are.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said, shielding my eyes. “Let’s do the dark for a while.”

We were sitting on a small dock behind our campsite at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, near St. Martinsville, La. Before us the swampy waters of the Borrow Pit Canal lie still and black, like a forgotten cup of tea. The dogs slept behind us. A flask of bourbon passed between us. The night was warm and clear and breezeless, and for the first time during our trip, I felt enfolded by the arms of the South.

We were watching gators.

If this country has spawned a weirder animal than the alligator, I cannot name it.  Alligators always look as though they just crawled out of a primordial sludge, and for good reason: They’ve been around for 200 million years. They are, in essence, living fossils. If you hang around Cajuns in south Louisiana long enough, you will learn gators can live 60 years, grow to 14 feet long and go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime. They can crack a turtle’s shell, capsize a johnboat and drown a black bear. Some even keep rocks in their stomachs to help with digestion.

Fascinating facts, all, but do you want to know the coolest thing about alligators? Their eyes shine bright amber — like E.T.’s heart — when illuminated by the LED beam of a headlamp. It’s eerie.

“C’mon. Turn off your light. Just for a minute.”

Jill reluctantly clicked off her headlamp, and the glowing-amber alligator eyes we had been tracking for the past half hour faded to black. The water was smoky glass. The moon hid behind the trees. We looked up — the sky was heavy with stars.

The swamp was quiet save for our words and the periodic call of a barred owl, whose distinctive voice is the wah-wah pedal of the avian music scene. Barred owls are easily the most talkative of the Bayou’s nocturnal creatures, but on this night Jill and I left our tree-perched neighbor in the conversational dust. Still water inspires reflection, I guess, and we talked a lot about how we’d gotten to this point, both figuratively and literally.

Literally, we had wobbled into Lake Fausse Pointe on three wheels. One of the CRV’s rear tires blew out on the levee road that leads to the park, and I spent our first half hour in this former home of the Chitimacha Indians putting on the spare. But, figuratively, it felt like we had begun to fall into a traveling rhythm. Pitching camp and cooking dinner had become second nature, and the dogs had become slobbering paragons of happiness and adaptability. Earlier in the day we had taken them on a hike through the swamp, where they chased each other through the black mud and tannin-stained water, joyfully oblivious to the fact they might be snatched by an alligator at any moment.

Watching the dogs gallop through gator habitat made Jill and me at once nervous and happy — not unlike this trip does when the good times roll in but the paychecks don’t. But sitting on the little dock, sipping whiskey and weaving words into the night air, we felt more peace with our decision than ever. I have no idea what the Chitimacha word for “good place” is, but we were in one.

Maybe 20 minutes had passed since we switched off our headlamps, and in that time the moon had risen to the treetops and our owl friend had ceased his caterwauling. The swamp’s silence seemed to possess weight; I could almost feel it against my temples and the tops of my shoulders. I listened for a gentle ripple or quivering leaf. I heard nothing.

“OK,” I whispered to Jill, “on the count of three, turn on your light. One … two … three …”

Our twin beams lit the surface of the canal and revealed three more alligator eyes — two of them staring directly at us no more than 10 feet from the dock’s edge. Jill let forth a muted squeal. I laughed the laugh of a man who uses chuckles to mask uneasiness.

“Are you serious? Are you serious?” Jill raised both hands to her mouth. She spoke through her fingers. “He’s totally stalking us.”

“Actually,” I said, “I think we’re the only thing keeping him from Jack and Isabel.”

It’s likely the gator had spotted the rising and falling bellies of our sleeping dogs, and was now contemplating whether they might make a good evening snack. During hungrier moments on the trip, I’ve wondered the same.

“Go get more whiskey,” I told Jill. “This is awesome.”

The dogs had become gator bait, and it might be argued I was using them to extend our evening of heightened sensory pleasure. I should probably be ashamed of this. Jill, for her part, expressed serious concern, but I tried to assuage it. Judging by the space between our stalker’s glowing eyes, I estimated he was no more than six or seven feet in length, and gators of that size typically feed on frogs and turtles and other critters much smaller than humans and big dogs. I assured Jill we were OK, that observing alligators from atop the dock was akin to watching sharks from the safety of a boat deck.

“But they can just crawl up on shore anytime they want,” she countered.

Technically, this was true. The dock rose above the water only a couple of feet, and the shoreline on either side of it sloped gently into the water. Still, there was vegetation aplenty in the form of trees and high grass.

“If one crawled out of the water, we would hear it,” I reasoned aloud. “So would the dogs. We’re fine. I promise.”

Just the same, when Jill went to fill the flask, I stepped off the dock to examine the shoreline. I walked the canal’s edge on both sides of the dock, scanning the waterline with the high beam from my headlamp. The left side was clear; but on the right, shining through a tangle of low branches, was another set of glowing amber eyes.

We were darn near surrounded. In my year of Peter Pan adventure, I was beginning to feel like Captain Hook.

When Jill returned, I apprised her of the situation. We stood in the center of the dock, and I illuminated the canal with a methodical sweep of my light, pointing out the position of each gator. We counted five. This included the sly sucker right in front of us, who seemed to have inched closer to the dock. His burning-ember gaze did not waver. At the other end of it, behind the legs of our camp chairs, Isabel stretched and sighed and settled back into a state of slothful inertia. The great Killer of Cats had no idea 600 pounds of scaly karma lurked just below her sight line.

Jill and I sat down and clicked off our headlamps. The moon was high enough now that we could see the shadowy forehead of the closest gator. I reached for Jill’s hand and planted a kiss on her forearm. She smiled and passed the whiskey.

Back in Phoenix, one of our favorite evening pastimes is sitting on our back patio watching the sprinklers. This is where, many a night, we talked for hours about the trip ahead, conjuring possibilities and particulars, assessing rewards and risks. We knew life on the road would be good, that there were bound to be pleasant surprises, but even in the dreamiest of our sprinkler dialogues, we never imagined this.


5 Responses to “Living fossils in the dead of night”

  1. Hey Jill,

    That nighttime shot is awesome! I tried to take some star trail shots a month or so ago, but had issues with too much moisture in the air fogging my lens. I’m heading down the 101 and will try again in CA as I plan to do some camping in Fort Bragg and a couple other areas.

    Hope all is well with you all.


  2. You two are quite a team – Jill you photos are spectacular. And Scott, you paint fabulous pictures with your words. That was a great post. I enjoyed every tantalizing bite.

  3. […] when she was an intern at The Albuquerque Journal. They have a recent blog post about spending the night in a gator infested state park in Lousiana. It’s a really fun read, might just make the hairs on the back of your neck stand […]

  4. Kelley says:

    Oh my goodness! I waited to read this until I had the time to completely delve into it and I was on the edge of my seat! Glad to see you lived to tell about it, literally. I had to scroll quickly past the gator pics because they freaked me out too much, but what an amazing experience for you guys. That’s the stuff you can’t predict, no matter how many nights looking at sprinklers. Crazy. Keep the stories comin’. Jill – the photos – especially the last one – are AMAZING. You are so talented.

  5. Abigail says:

    This post makes me squeal, I have the biggest fear of gators. Well of one snatching Pippi while we are out walking in Florida.

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